Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: The Death of the Hen

“Once on a time the cock and the hen went to the nut mountain, and they agreed beforehand that whichever of them should find a nut was to divide it with the other.”

This fairy tale is quite gloomy, as you can correctly deduce from the title. It also [unexpectedly, yet seamlessly] contains elements introduced in The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean, so you can bet I dwelled slightly on some of the things I discussed in the last Fairy Tales post

Anyway, The Death of the Hen

If after reading that first line you thought oh what a sweet agreement, bless your heart. For those of us more jaded or more inclined to think that a negative twist has to be coming, congratulations. The hen is the first character to find a nut, and decides she isn’t going to share it and pops it in her mouth. However she has great difficulty swallowing and is afraid of choking, so she frantically asks the cock to fetch her some water. He runs to the brook and asks for water, “But the brook answered, ‘First run to the bride and ask her for some red silk.'” Running over to the bride (a random bride near the brook?), the cock asks her for red silk to give to the brook so he can get water for the hen, “But the bride answered, ‘First go and fetch me my garland that hangs on a willow.'” He does so, and brings each entity their desired item. But by the time the cock returned to the hen, she had choked and died. 

And the cock was so grieved that he cried aloud, and all the beasts came and lamented for the hen; and six mice built a little wagon on which to carry the poor hen to her grave, and when it was ready they harnessed themselves to it, and the cock drove.

“On the way,” they met a fox, wolf, bear, stag, lion, “and all the beasts in the wood. And the procession went on till they came to a brook.” We are not told if this is the same brook that denied the cock some water until getting something in return, but I suppose that doesn’t really matter.

The cock wonders aloud about how the procession will go across the brook, but fortunately there was a straw in the brook which said, “‘I will lay myself across, so that you may pass over on me.'” Well, if you read my last post or have read The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean, what happens next will not be a surprise. When the mice got onto the straw, the straw slipped and fell into the water, drowning itself and the mice. Then a coal strolls onto the scene and offers to lay across the brook, “but no sooner had he touched the water than he hissed, went out, and was dead.” Then a stone comes into the picture and “laid himself across the stream.” Somehow the cock is able to pull the wagon with the dead hen across, but when he tries to draw the other animals across the stone gives way and they all drown.

So the cock was left all alone with the dead hen, and he dug a grave and laid her in it, and he raised a mound above her, and set himself down and lamented so sore that at last he died. And so they were all dead together.

A dark take on a happy ending, or just a dark ending? Tragedy and hardship are not rare in Grimm’s fairy tales, but everything about this one is dreadful. If we go the “why did it have to be this way?” route, we end up back at the beginning when the hen decides not to share the nut she found – her choosing to eat it by herself and then choking set off all these tragic events. If, as a child, I had been told that not sharing meant everyone around me would die I might have turned out to be a much better sharer in my adult life. 

Looking at this fairy tale through the “well this is just whimsical [dark] nonsense” lens, I’m reminded of Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poltrie (Fairy Tale #13). Both are examples of chain tales, although the latter is much more cheerful. Even though the situation is dire, The Death of the Hen has a sort of sing-song-like rhythm as the cock tries to fetch items for the brook and the bride, and as the different materials try to create a way across the brook at the end. 

The fact that every character is an animal or material/substance is interesting – would this story be fit for human characters? How much more gruesome would it feel? Does the fact that there are only non-humans involved make the death lighter? As if talking animals and coal and bodies of water ease the heaviness of the folkloric reality of the tale? I’m just really struck by the “something bad happens, then everyone dies, but it’s okay because they’re ALL dead” message – if it’s even a message.

Finally, I’m not as captured by the gender roles in this tale like I was during my reading and analysis of the previous tale. I think that because there are just so many more details and turn of events at play, the gender roles don’t seem to be as much at odds here as they seem to be in The Straw, the Coal and the Bean. I wish my meager Google searching would give me answers as to why these tales are connected the way they are, but so far I’ve come up empty. And now that I’ve sat here for too long thinking about what it all means, I’m ready to hear some fresh thoughts – so share yours in a comment below! 

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